Water is the lifeblood of the Wild Olympics. Each drop of rain that falls from the gray skies gives the region another dose of beauty, injecting it with a watery personality that makes the peninsula world famous. Lush, green and teeming with life, the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State is wet, wild and gorgeous. However, few know just how diverse the region is regarding rainfall. It isn’t all endless gray skies or plagued with torrential downpours; the Olympic Peninsula is as diverse in rainfall as it is in its unique ecosystem. The rain is what makes the region strong and what makes the individuals who call the peninsula home so tough. Whether we live in a region that gets just over a foot of rain a year, or live where a dozen feet of rain is considered a dry year, the precipitation falling from the sky is yet another reason why we love the Wild Olympics.
The Wild Olympic Rainy Season
The rainy season of the Olympics can last anywhere from six to nine months before drying out. All winter long, storm clouds dump rain in the low lands and huge amounts of snow in the mountains, feeding the Olympics’ remaining glaciers. Without the rain that falls on the Olympics, there would be no Wild Olympics. There would be no salmon, no forests and no glaciers. Animals would flee the area, and the resident elk, marmots and other endemic species wouldn’t be around to make the backcountry even more diverse. The huge stands of trees, the towering ferns and the maples dripping with moss would vanish, removing the stunning quality of forests in the Olympics.
Starting in October, storms packing heavy rains and wind roll in off the Pacific, stacking up against the western reaches of the Olympic Mountains. Inches fall, quickly becoming feet and turning once lazy, summer rivers into raging torrents of water. The rivers reshape the river valleys, eroding river banks at an unprecedented pace. The Queets River is said to sweep across the river valley every 900 years, constantly changing the look and feel of the region.
A Desert Near the Rainforest
Most who visit the Olympic Peninsula tend to think the entire region is consistently soaked in rain, with endless precipitation falling from the constant gray skies. While that may be true of the western Olympics, there is one region of the peninsula that is so arid and dry, it is rumored that cacti once grew naturally. The valley below the Olympic Mountains, making up the hamlet of Sequim is one of the driest places in Western Washington, getting 15 inches of rain a year, the same amount as desert cities like Los Angeles and half as much as San Antonio, Texas.
Splitting the near desert-like conditions near the town of Sequim in two, the Dungeness River of the Wild Olympics tumbles steeply down from the Olympic Mountains for 28 short miles before spilling into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. In the rain shadow of the Olympics, the Dungeness region of the peninsula has become a hotbed for outdoor recreation, giving mountain bikers, hikers, trail runners and paddlers incredible areas to explore. Starting in the rainy and snowy shadow of Mount Constance, the flow of the Dungeness is fed by the rains, swelling creeks and the Gray Wolf River and making the Dungeness a roaring, wild and scenic river during the rainy seasons.
The Wet and Wild Rainforests
For most, it is hard to fathom what ten feet of rain a year looks and feels like, but for residents of the Queets, Hoh, Quinault and Wynoochee River Valleys, that is a dry year. For every mile west you travel from Sequim, the annual rainfall increases by at least an inch. Simply stated, Forks, which is 73 miles from Sequim gets a whopping 119 inches of rain. That fails in comparison to the true rainforest regions of the Wild Olympics. By the time you reach the deep corners of the Quinault, Queets, Hoh, Skokomish and Wynoochee Rivers, the rainfall is well over 12 feet (144 inches), easily hitting 14 or 15 feet on wetter years.
The rain forests of the Wild Olympics is where the rain falls in buckets, providing fuel to the immense ferns and dripping mosses covering nearly every square inch of the rainforest floor. It is where salmon swim in pristine waters, continuing a lifecycle that has been going on for eons. As elk and black bear roam the valleys, feeding off the rain-fed food sources, the Wild Olympics’ perfect balance of nature becomes perfectly evident. The rains have helped create stunning old growth stands of forests, towering over the saturated river valleys for hundreds of years. They have provided an ecosystem that has lasted millennia, keeping healthy diversity among numerous species of flora and fauna. They have defined the true sprit of wild lands in the Pacific Northwest, and they are an intricate part of the DNA of the region.
Enjoy Wild Olympics After a Heavy Rain
In many places around the country, the return of the rain means the inevitable retreat indoors to dryness and warmth. Out in the Olympics, the rain means rivers ready to fish, rapids ready to paddle and pristine rainforests returning to their classic conditions. It is during the rainy season that the Wild Olympics are truly defined, becoming a shining example of how extreme weather can make an area absolutely breathtaking. In the rain, there are no bad places to explore, but there are a few highlights that will give you the best example of the power of water and rain in the lands of the proposed Wild Olympics Wilderness and Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
One of the most stunning places to see the power of rainfall in the Wild Olympics is along the Sol Duc River. During the drier summer months, this scenic area showcases a meandering river, highlighted by cascades, box canyons and the always breathtaking Sol Duc Falls. After a week of heavy rain, the Sol Duc becomes alive; waters pound the river banks and the waterfall becomes a violent and beautiful, never ending onslaught of water. Mist rises from the bottom of the falls, returning to the trails surrounding the landmark in the form of even heavier precipitation. Further downstream, the river bubbles and churns, pushing giant fallen trees downstream. Returning salmon leap out of the water at the Salmon Cascades, hoping to clear the rocks and return to their spawning grounds. The Sol Duc in the rain is impressive and helps capture the watery spirit of just how wild the Olympics can be.
On the southern slopes of the Olympics, rainfall helps make the Wynoochee region an incredible place to see the power of water. The Wynoochee region is remote and during the rainy season, the area feels even more removed from civilization. Downstream along the Wynoochee, huge salmon return to their spawning grounds, making this one of the best salmon fishing rivers in the contiguous United States. Upstream, as the clouds rest on the tops of cedars, firs and hemlocks, feet of rain fall, turning the waterfalls of the region into torrential beasts. Wynoochee Falls, usually a great place to take a dip during the summer months, becomes a behemoth and the perfect place to spend a wet and wonderful day in the rains of the Wild Olympics.
Easy to access and closer to major roads, the Quinault region of Olympics is the perfect family-friendly area to see the beauty of mist, rain and water. Along the Quinault Nature Trail, streams and creeks become raging with the moisture, making the 13 miles of easy-to-follow trails an ideal way to see the rainforest in the rain. Full of towering trees, huge ferns and dozens of destinations close to the South and North Shore Roads, getting into the Quinault rainforest on a rainy day is a fantastic introduction to the impressive rainfall in the Wild Olympics. As elk roam the Quinault River valley and salmon swim upstream, the rains season in Quinault is breathtaking, memorable and the perfect place for rainy, outdoor recreation.
These trails and wet regions help highlight the beauty and importance of the The Wild Olympics Wilderness and Wild & Scenic Rivers Act. The recreation opportunities during the rainy season are by no means limited to the areas mentioned above. In fact, they are just the tip of the iceberg of amazing outdoors destinations in the Wild Olympics Wilderness and Wild & Scenic Rivers Act. Reintroduced last year by U.S. Senator Patty Murray and Representative Derek Kilmer, the bill would permanently protect over 126,000 acres of new Wilderness areas in the Olympic National Forest, and 19 Olympic Peninsula rivers and their tributaries as Wild & Scenic Rivers – the first ever Wild & Scenic Rivers on the Peninsula. Designed through extensive community input to protect ancient forests, clean water, and enhance outdoor recreation, the Wild Olympics legislation has been endorsed by over 550 local businesses, sportsmen organizations, outdoor recreation groups, faith leaders, conservation groups and local elected officials, and more than 12,000 local residents have signed petitions in support.
This article was written by Douglas Scott. Through his numerous guidebooks, including the Definitive Guide to Olympic National Park and 52 Hikes Olympic Peninsula, the best trails and experiences in and around the Wild Olympics can be found. More information of Douglas and his work can be found at Outdoor-Society.com.